Teenager speaks out about being sexually exploited online in hope it will help others

  • ITV Granada Reports journalist Emma Sweeney spoke to 'Joanna' about the abuse she suffered at the hands of the man she believed to be her boyfriend

A woman coerced and sexually exploited as a schoolgirl by a man she thought was her boyfriend is calling for tighter online security to help prevent online abuse of teenagers.

Joanna, whose name has been changed, says she was subject to GPS tracking, cut off from her friends and made to "speak sexually" to men over social media.

She met the man through a friend of a friend, and she says, once he had worked his way into her life, things began to change.

"At first it was like the honeymoon period," she says. "We were in love and you know, wanted to spend time together and stuff like that."

But, she adds: "He had a GPS location tracker and he would know what time I finished school and approximately what time I should get home.

"If I wasn’t home in that time he would start to accuse me of cheating."

Joanna's abuser then began to cut her off from her friends, and once he had isolated her, she says he then began to coerce her into speaking "sexually to men" over social media "in return for money".

"But I never seen any of the money, it just went directly to him," she says.

"His controlling ways were so intense at this time that I felt like I couldn’t say no - I was quite literally under his spell."

She claims there were threats to kill her friends and family if she did not do what she was told.

As the weeks passed, Joanna’s relationship became even more toxic.

She claims there were threats to kill her friends and family if she did not do what she was told and says intimate photos of her were used as blackmail online.

"It was a constant, every day, I will send these photos, I will send these photos" she said.

"It could have been as simple as if you don’t answer the phone or as extreme as if you don’t speak to the men online."

"I’d been through so many months, every single day he was saying this to me - I said in the end, please do it, get it over and done with.

"I can’t go through having this hanging over my head for so long. 

"In the end he did actually do it. I was having messages from people I went to school with.

"It felt degrading. I felt so exposed and so vulnerable to the world."

Joanna's abuser cut her off from family and friends, leaving her with no-where to turn. Credit: ITV Granada Reports

Many experts warn that the use of smartphones and social media as a tool to carry out abuse is one of the biggest threats facing young people today.

Rick Pendlebury, from the Maggie Oliver Foundation, reports seeing increasing numbers of victims who are being exploited in this way.

He said: "When people are offering you things that you haven’t got, like money, things for doing things for them which maybe they can’t afford, that becomes the norm and that’s where things become a problem because to them it’s normal but actually, it’s not normal and it’s wrong.

"There’s no barriers there where parents can intervene, unless they get the phones off the children, but by then it’s too late."

Joanna’s abuser has now been jailed, but the intimate photos she says he used as blackmail will likely always be online.

She has now joined growing calls for online change for those aged 16 and under.

"The social media companies say we can’t control what people put out but surely there should be some kind of algorithm that when it sees things that shouldn’t be put up, they should be taken away not just be allowed to stay on there," she says.

In recent months, the debate over the use of smartphones for under 16's has taken centre stage - due in part to an on-going campaign by Esther Ghey, the mother of the murdered transgender schoolgirl Brianna Ghey, from Warrington.

Calling for an outright ban, Ms Ghey said her daughter had accessed pro-anorexia and self-harm material online and been “very protective” over her phone, which had caused arguments.

“If she couldn’t have accessed the sites, she wouldn’t have suffered as much,” she said.

Describing the internet as the “Wild West”, she said the focus of technology had been on making money rather than “how we protect people or how we can necessarily benefit society”.

  • Emma Sweeney speaks about calls for tighter online security for young people are part of a wider debate

Esther Ghey - who has previously said she does not believe the recently introduced Online Safety Bill goes far enough - is also calling for searches for inappropriate material to be flagged to parents after evidence one of her daughter's killers, Scarlett Jenkinson, had watched videos of torture and murder online.

It has been reported the Government is considering an outright ban for under 16's use of smartphones.

But in response a spokesperson said: “We do not comment on speculation. Our commitment to making the UK the safest place to be a child online is unwavering, as evidenced by our landmark Online Safety Act.”

In response to the sexual exploitation detailed by Joanna, the Government said: “No one should be exposed to harm such as sexual abuse, sextortion and grooming online.

"Our Online Safety Act will make the UK the safest place in the world to be online, requiring social media companies take swift and proactive action to tackle child sexual abuse. If they fail to do so they will face significant fines that could reach billions of pounds.

“Whilst Ofcom implements our legislation, our message to platforms is clear; they should not wait to be fined and must act now to protect children online.”

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